Monday, 5 July 2010

Let's do the Time Warp again

I've just spent an excruciatingly boring day at an FE college. No. I'm not a student; this was as a member of a department team tasked with completing a form. This form appeared to have been designed to fit into some kind of quality management process, with good knowledge of an Ofsted language dictionary being required which (fortunately and sadly) I do possess. With nine pages divided into sections covering various elements of course management and delivery, each seeking strengths and weaknesses - no, sorry, we're not supposed to have weaknesses any more so the latter heading read Areas for improvement - it would be familiar to any of you who have wrestled with something called a Course Review or even a Strategic Annual Review.

The first thing that struck me was that the form was dreadfully badly designed for anyone to use. In fact it wasn't a 'form' at all in a Word sense. It may have looked OK when printed, in an Arial Bold kind of way, but the boxes to be filled in were all formatted as justified text so huge gaps appeared between words and the font in the box was the same black ruddy Arial Bold so it rapidly became a messy-looking affair that wasn't something anyone could possibly have any enthusiasm to read. Perhaps that was intentional. Filling in a box tended to push everything below down and, more often than not, split things confusingly and randomly across page breaks. I did suggest Control + L or + Enter a few times at appropriate moments during the day but that fell on deaf ears or may have been mistaken for something to do with hell or giving birth.

The second thing was that as we debated what should be entered the most senior chap there was typing it very haphazardly and slowly on the form. In some ways this would have made sense had he been able to spell or summarise what we were saying reasonably quickly but we could only watch as a succession of red and green wavy lines appeared at almost every burst of keyboard activity. As he'd connected his pc to a smartboard an original idea of sharing the process became a bit of entertainment for the rest of us.

What was actually being entered, even after debate with reasonably intelligent colleagues, was typical academic-speak. Saying the same thing twice, using long words wherever possible and not actually saying anything much at all at the end of the day, just in case it didn't match something somewhere else on this form which was rapidly assuming almost biblical importance. This was because all the good things we reckoned we were doing well didn't have any obvious evidence. Our assurances were not to be trusted. It had to be something written in a Course Management File and if it wasn't written on the right form in the right section of said CMF then it didn't happen.

So this drivel went on for several hours. I did think about asking why we were doing it in the first place but that was one of those question that you really do need to pluck up a bit of courage to ask. I did have the courage but didn't think of it until about 4 o'clock and had to dash off to collect my son from school five minutes later.

What really frustrated me, though, was when many strengths were shown as figures for things like how many students had enrolled, been retained and succeeded. These numbers were on various sheets of paper. Those sheets had been printed from a nearby computer. Someone then counted up the three numbers from the lines on the printed sheet, yelled them at the expensive typist who then did his best to slap them in the right box. Then we all watched the little Windows calculator appear on the smartboard and sums being entered, the answers then being put in brackets with a percentage sign added into the same boxes. To top it off, a benchmark figure was entered with a ± number indicating how much better or worse we were.

All this flaming data is available on a college Management Information System or other computer records. Why on earth couldn't the form be populated with this information automatically?? It's a successful department in many ways but we should surely manage information better.

And the department? Computing. Oh boy.

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